Tlellagraph: Understanding in the age of emoticon

Our Thanksgiving weekend wasn’t long enough, so we kept the kids home from school on Tuesday. Our Thanksgiving mission was to watch all the Star Wars movies in succession and we still had two to watch. But it was also a beautiful day, so we decided to go on a family bike ride to the Crow’s Nest between movies. It was one of those Tlell family moments where you feel like you’re doing it right, a moment you want to post on Facebook just to share the beauty and your inherent wonderfulness 😉

The truth was, surrounding that perfect family moment was some less-than-perfect reality. Our fabulous postmaster pointed out we had a package, which we politely declined as we were on our bikes, but we still haven’t got it. (If you read my column last week, you’ll know it was also just good Tlell etiquette.)

On top of that, I’ve been on a bike probably three times in the last 10 years. My rear hurt like crazy. My wrist and my neck are sore to this day. Never mind that I blew the entire caloric gain by eating a homemade peanut-butter chocolate bar. Oh… not home-made by me! I bought it at Crow’s Nest 😉

The fact that Facebook has the potential to reflect only the best of our lives and the unfortunate side effect of increasing the anxiety, envy, and self-doubt of our “friends” is not news. But it got me thinking how we communicate in this day and age. While texting, email, and social media make up a lot of our communication, we do still talk face-to-face. So how is our overall communication measuring up?

If you’ve done any courses in communication, you’ve likely heard this before: when we get a message from another person, only seven per cent of understanding comes from the words. Thirty-eight per cent comes from tone of voice, and the rest is body language. I’ve spouted this fact to many a client myself.

I began to wonder, what are the merits of this study? How did they get these percentages? Are they relevant today?

Turns out, the findings are listed in a 1971 book by Albert Mehrabian called Silent Messages. They are based on only two studies that measured a person’s understanding of single words (such as “maybe,” “really,” and “oh”) based on the word, or the word and tone, or the word and tone and visual of the face.

Respondents understood “right” if they had all three sources. So what the percentage actually reflects is that for inconsistent or contradictory communications, body language and tone may be more accurate than words themselves. It doesn’t meant all communication can be boiled down to those percentages, but it does highlight a limit of text-only communication! (Does that exclamation point fit?)

This problem was highlighted when the internet first came to be. Miscommunication abounded! As a result, in 1982 computer scientist Scott Fahlman proposed that a rotated smiley face composed of a colon, a hyphen and a parenthesis 🙂 should indicate that a writer is joking.

Now we have emoticons, and they are multiplying faster than rabbits. But do they help? In some ways, yes, but only if you have a strong context with the person you are texting. In 2012, Tyler Schnoebelen found that use of emoticons varies by geography, age, gender, and social class — just like dialects or regional accents. Friendgroups fall into the habit of using certain emoticons, just as they develop their own slang. So if you know what your friend means when he uses the winky face with the sticky-out tongue, you’re good to go.

What matters are the three C’s of nonverbal communication: context, clusters, and congruence. How we interpret words depends on context (familiarity, relationships); clusters of observed behaviour (crossed arms might be someone is guarded, or cold); and congruence (what that seven-per-cent rule applies to). If you know me, have read all my columns, know I’m not cold, then you might know what I’m getting at. But maybe you don’t…

Everything is changing. There is now a notion that if you don’t email or text someone before making a phone call or — gasp! — see them in person, it sends a message that you are prioritizing your needs over theirs. It’s a new etiquette. Is it the end of the world as we know it? Take a bike ride through Tlell as you think it over. I doubt it is 😉